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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ A state of Tennessee informational sign cautions against driving and texting along I-24 near Jasper, Tennessee, on Tuesday, November 26, 2019.

Travelers on Tennessee interstates might have noticed more silly and humorous messages on the digital signs above the roadway this holiday season.

One that went viral in 2018 and regained popularity again in December took a page out of National Lampoon's book when the signs read, "Cousin Eddy said Twitter's full. Put down the phone."

The signs, formally known as Dynamic Message Signs, are part of the Tennessee Department of Transportation's SmartWay Intelligent Transportation System and are a way to remind people about safety in a lighthearted way.

Jennifer Flynn, department spokeswoman, said it's important for TDOT to display signs that will make people pay attention while also reminding them to be safe.

"We don't want to continuously run the same messages and have people not pay attention," she said.

By changing the signs regularly, Flynn said, they think people will pay attention to the signs because they don't know what to expect when they look up.

During morning and evening rush hours, detailed messages are displayed on the signs that provide travel times and other specific information for a specific location.

From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., what TDOT considers "non-peak hours," the department displays general safety messages throughout the state that tend to be creative and often funny.

Flynn said the department uses the same safety message on all the signs throughout Tennessee unless there is something happening in an area where more specific information needs to be relayed, such as a crash, workers ahead, foggy conditions, etc.

When it comes to creating the messages, the chain of command starts with the employees at TDOT's headquarters.

That team provides information on what safety campaign or slogan should run to the four Traffic Management Centers in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville and Memphis.

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Traffic flows under a TDOT sign Monday, March 13, 2017 on I-24 near the Browns Ferry Road exit. / Staff Photo by Angela Lewis Foster

The centers serve as focal points for traffic management operations and communications in each region.

"The purpose behind these messages is to make drivers think about safety," Flynn said. "If we can convey a safety message in a way that also makes them laugh, it's even better."

Rusty Bridges lives in Ooltewah but works in the Lookout Mountain area. Bridges said he depends on the digital signs nearly every day for his commute to and from work.

"On Friday I was driving home and on I-24, the sign let me know that it would take from 12 to 17 minutes to get to the split," Bridges said. "When I saw that, I got off and took a different route."

TDOT also will update the state's fatality numbers on signs to make people aware of how dangerous interstates could be. Bridges said he always takes notice of those numbers.

"It might be a grim reminder, but it's effective," he said.

Interstate fatalities in Tennessee are up from a year ago, from 1,034 to 1,119, proving that safe driving techniques and reminders are crucial to roadway safety.

The number of teens involved in fatal accidents is also up from a year ago, from 84 to 124.

Hamilton County saw a jump from 2018 to 2019, as well. There were 57 fatalities on interstates in Hamilton County last year compared to 43 the previous year.

The 14-fatality difference was the second highest jump in the state, only behind Davidson County, which saw 101 fatalities in 2019 compared to 79 in 2018, records show.

TDOT's headquarters hosts the database for all the quirky messages the department uses throughout the year.

Flynn said some of them were suggested by the department's staff and others are submissions from contests that TDOT ran for several years.

In 2017, TDOT received more than 2,000 suggestions for its sign contest.

 

The top five from the 2017 contest:

— "Do your duty. Seatbelt your booty!"

— "Use your blinking blinker!"

— "Be kind. Don't ride my behind."

— "In a hurry? Shoulda left early. Slow down!"

— "We've upped our road safety, so up yours."

 

"Some messages are funny, and some are serious," Flynn said. "The one thing the messages have in common is that they are about safety."

Bridges said he does see the sillier signs while he's driving, but he couldn't think of any specific favorites.

"They make you think," he said. "I'm trying to get in the habit of wearing my seat belt more. If I have my kids in the car I'll always wear one, but if I'm just driving a few miles I won't. When I see a wreck on the highway, though, it makes you think."

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A TDOT information sign on the Bill Carter Causeway in Soddy-Daisy offers an instructional message for motorists who drive distracted. / Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press - November 12, 2014

Flynn said the department will use submissions from previous contests and take suggestions from the public from time to time.

Some of Flynn's personal favorites include, "Pickup trucks rock. They also roll. Wear a seat belt" and during the Bonnaroo festival signs on I-24 read, "Peace, Love and Seatbelts."

Flynn said a recent sign that travelers might have seen that she wrote was "Even Santa wears a seatbelt."

She said most of the feedback is positive, but some people will write in with complaints about certain signs.

"It's weird," Flynn said. "For every one that people seem to love, we'll get some complaints, too."

With three lines and 21 characters per line, messages have to be strategically written.

The most recent sign on interstates has been turning the heads of Star Wars fans.

Inspired by the new Disney+ Star Wars series "The Mandalorian," the newest sign reads, "Baby Yoda uses the force and a car seat."

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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